Group of middle schools students. Providing opportunities for students to build community and collaborate with one another is an essential component of online learning.

In this module we explore how to build community with your students.

We discuss practical strategies, as well as some of the community building tools that can assist.


Learning Objectives

At the end of this module, participants will be able to:

Photo of a dictionary definition. Glossary of Key Terms

Asynchronous Discussion - Discussion where students can respond in their own time.

Blog - Short for "Web log," a specialized site that allows an individual or group to share a running log of events and personal insights with online audiences.

Synchronous Discussion - Discussion that takes place live and in real time.

Wiki - Hawaiian for "fast," a wiki is a collection of Web pages designed to allow anyone with access, the opportunity to contribute or modify content.



Big Idea - Building Community

Sets of fists on top of each other, forming a bond. According to Wenger (1999), the value of education lies in active involvement in a community.

Students who are actively engaged and working together collaboratively show dramatic increases in academic achievement, self-esteem and positive social skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

In this section we focus on two instructional strategies that can help engage students and build community in the classroom:


Here's How - Building Community

Drs. Palloff and Pratt Encouraging students to become active participants in the online classroom needs to begin early.

In this audio recording, Drs. Palloff and Pratt discuss the importance of creating an online persona and how integral it is to building a learning community.

Click the grey arrow to begin. (Recording time is 3:21. There is no video component.)



Here's How - Building Community

As Palloff and Pratt suggest, once you start building your community, you will need to take steps to foster it.

This can be achieved in multiple ways.

Probably the most popular method for both online and hybrid teachers is the ongoing use of asynchronous discussion boards.

Discussions can take place in many forms - between instructors and students, or within student groups.

In the following pages we focus on different types of activities, how to use synchronous and asynchronous discussions and how to assess student contributions.

Here's How - Building Community

Dr. Tony Bates Dr. Tony Bates is the current Chair of the International Experts Panel for the Open University of Portugal and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Advisory Council on Technology and Education.

He uses discussion forums on a regular basis. In the following audio recording he discusses their impact.

Click the grey arrow to begin. (Recording time is 3:03. There is no video component.)

Here's How - Building Community

Discussion activities can take many forms. Aside from initial introductions, here are a few suggestions:

Discussion icon

Discussion Question: What are your favorite types of discussion activities?

From the Field - Building Community

Synchronous discussions are another option. Dr. Dennis Longmire, Director of the Survey Research Program in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX explains how he implements them in his online classes.


From the Field - Building Community

Regardless of how you structure your discussions, if students will be graded on their participation, you will need to clearly state your expectations.

Include rubrics that outline the specific criteria you are looking for to help students find success.

In the sidebar are examples of discussion rubrics from colleges around the country.

Before moving on to the next section, complete the activity below.

 Hyperlink to Flash Card Activity 


Big Idea - Group Projects

Students working on a multimedia project Collaboration is a key feature of a learning community.

Through the creation of shared goals, exploration, and process of meaning making, collaboration helps students achieve deeper levels of knowledge (Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

In this section we explore examples of how to engage your students in collaborative group projects with a variety of social networking tools.

Group projects can be a challenge because students may not live in the same time zone and may have vastly different schedules or work-style preferences.

Some students may not prefer to do group work at all because of the difficulty of working with others.

However, in real life many projects are team efforts. Engaging students in the building of your online learning community can have powerful results.

Here's How - Group Projects

When coordinating your project, Michigan State University has these suggestions:

Here's How – Group Projects

There are many creative ways to engage students in online projects. There are also a great many social networking tools that can help.

In the interests of space (and given the shelf life of each new technological tool that becomes available), we will not go into great detail about each online tool.

Our focus is more on the creative aspect of students reaching out and building community with each other and with the outside world.  

In this section we provide some examples from teachers from the field who are engaging students in online projects with great success.


From the Field - Group Projects

Photo of Jason Ford In the following audio recording, Jason Ford, Professor of Computer Information of Technology at Lone Star College-Kingwood, Kingwood, TX discusses the importance of including social networking tools in online instruction.

Click the grey arrow to begin. (Recording time is 1:22. There is no video component.)





From the Field - Group Projects

Young students working at a computer. Bob Sprankle is a fourth grade teacher in Wells Elementary School, ME. He has his students community building and social networking at a young age.

Each week Bob's students are given the responsibility of producing a podcast to review and highlight class activities.

"By writing, producing, and publishing their own show, my fourth grade students became linked with students and teachers from all over the world.

The windows and the walls of our classroom were blown wide open, letting the rest of the world in, offering us many opportunities in learning that wouldn't have been possible otherwise."

In the following linked podcast, Bob's students provide an overview of their project:

Room 208 Podcast (Please allow time for the file to load. The podcast is approximately 5 minutes long.)


From the Field - Group Projects

Wiki and blogging collaborative projects are also popular, and provide a free and functional way to get students collaborating.

Teachers have the option to access free wiki sites, such as PB Wiki or WikiSpaces to have students build their very own pages and projects.

Seventh grade teacher Clarence Fisher, from Snow Lake, Manitoba lives in a small rural town, but his students make connections worldwide.

Click the link to read the instructions Clarence provides his students for a sample wiki project >>


From the Field - Group Projects

As part of the project, Clarence asks students to select major cities around the world.Big city skyscape.

They are asked to make an agreed upon number of points of contact with people who live in the respective cities.

Contact is classified as comments made on blogs, YouTube videos, Flickr pictures, or other social networking sites. Project plans and results are posted on individual wiki pages.

Clarence and his students receive an enormous amount of contact and help from people around the globe.

From the Field - Group Projects

Photo of Jason Ford As mentioned earlier, Jason Ford uses Second Life, an online virtual world, with great success.

In the following audio recording, he discusses how he implements group projects with it in his online classroom.

Click the grey arrow to begin. (Recording time is 2:11. There is no video component.)


From the Field - Group Projects

In this past section, we have presented just a few examples of collaborative projects where students are working together towards common goals and building community.

Perhaps they will prompt you to consider creative ways to engage students in collaborative projects in your classrooms.

Discussion icon

Discussion Question: What are some examples of group projects you like to use in your online classroom?


Building community should not be limited to our online students. There are many opportunities for online educators to engage with other instructors world-wide in professional development communities.

In the side bar we provide a few examples of teachers who are regular bloggers and have a vast readership of instructors interested in education technology and online learning.


Providing opportunities for students to build community and collaborate is entirely possible in the online world.

Whether you are engaging in asynchronous or synchronous discussions, or engaging students in collaborative group projects with blogs, wikis or Second Life, this module has provided a just a few examples of what you might consider.

As with every online activity, be sure to provide students with feedback, assessment criteria and a clear sense of your expectations to help guide them through the learning process.

For an overview of this module, complete the activity below. The Final Assessment follows the Reference section.

 Hyperlink to DragNDrop Activity 



Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R. (1989). Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MS: Interaction Book Company, as cited in Fogarty, R. (1995) Best Practices for the Learner-Centered Classroom. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight Publishing.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2001). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ritter, S. (2008). Social networking in higher education, Terra Incognita, Retrieved April 14, 2009 from

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Final Assessment

Please complete the following before proceeding to the next module. Click on each question to begin.

 Question 1

 Question 2

 Question 3

 Question 4